In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
You may not recognize the name, but Montanism is alive and well in 21st century America. It’s been tweaked and repackaged, but its core DNA is easy to trace.
Montanus was a 2nd century heretic who claimed that God had spoken to him directly, apart from Scripture. By spinning the words of John 14:16, “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever,” he identified himself as the helper God had promised.
Of course, the sky’s the limit for those who claim direct, divine revelation. This opens the floodgates for anything to be taught in the name of Christ. Most false teachers misinterpret or misapply God’s Word. Some overrule it. Consider Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Ellen G. White (Seventh Day Adventism), Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses), or David Koresh (Branch Davidians), among others. Each claimed authority to overturn clear passages of God’s Word. Where the serpent asked, “Did God really say . . . ?” the Montanist answers, “THIS is what God says,” even when it contradicts Scripture.
According to the historian Eusebius, Montanus “was filled with spiritual excitement and suddenly fell into a kind of trance and unnatural ecstasy. He raved, and began to chatter and talk nonsense. . . . Of those who listened at that time to his sham utterances, some were annoyed, regarding him as possessed, a demoniac in the grip of a spirit of error, a disturber of the masses.”
There is no pathology report that tells how Montanus ended up believing what he did. Technically, here is everything we need to know: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) God also warns that, left unchecked, false teaching is like a cancer that grows and metastasizes and will not stop on its own. The endgame for Satan is always the same: use whatever lies it takes to turn people from trusting in Christ alone to trusting in themselves.
It is no surprise, then, that Montanism emphasized personal holiness. Its strict moral code taught that any major sin (like murder or adultery) committed after Baptism was “unforgivable.” Fasting and prayer were required for any who hoped to receive a direct revelation from God. Like charismatics today, any Christian who wanted the special gifts of the Holy Spirit had to cross a certain threshold of piety.
The early church responded to Montanism at the Synod of Iconium in A.D. 230. Not only was Montanus branded a false teacher, he was also labeled an unbeliever and was excommunicated. Those baptized into Montanism were not considered to be Christians.
In His grace the Lord warned the people of Judah, “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in My name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long will this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies? Indeed, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart, who try to make My people forget My name by their dreams which everyone tells his neighbor, as their fathers forgot My name for Baal.” (Jeremiah 23:25-27) Every error has the same potential.
Today, Montanism continues—not as a church, but as a movement that crosses denominational lines and often flies under the doctrinal radar. It is found among Charismatics who claim to have the gifts once given to the apostles. It is present in popular books such as Jesus Calling (30 million copies sold) that claim direct revelation. Thankfully, it can be overcome by “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
(2 Timothy 3:15)
James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.